Just like today, the principal means of establishing guilt, in more serious criminal cases, was by Jury. However the make-up of the juries was different in several key ways.
Trial by jury has been the principal way in which criminal matters have been resolved, since the late 13th century. Although, at this time, it resembled more of an inquest by the person's neighbours.
In the 18th century, it was still considered an advantage if jurors had prior knowledge of the background to a trial, and any knowledge they had of the community (particularly of its more disreputable members) was to be used when making decisions. This was to change over the course of the 19th century.
In the early 19th century, jurors often served more than once, so most juries included experienced jurors who were familiar with court procedures. This meant trials could be conducted quickly.
At that time, jurors were all male (unless a special expert female jury was called, which very occasionally happened, if the examination was something women were thought better able to judge). Appointment to a jury was considered prestigious and many jurors held other civic offices.
A further difference from current times, is that the same juries heard all the cases in one session. A new jury was summoned for each day, not for each case.
At the Assizes there were two different types of jury - the ' Grand Jury' and the 'Petty' or 'Petit' jury. The two juries had very different roles:
The Grand Jury
The function of a grand jury was to accuse anyone who might be guilty of an offence and to protect others against unfounded prosecution (such as an accusation made out of malice). The grand jury would decide if there was sufficient evidence in a case to put the defendant on trial.
At the start of the Assizes (or Quarter Sessions), they would vet the indictments and statements and hear evidence from the prosecutors and their witnesses, but not defendants. If a grand jury believed the evidence was sufficient to warrant a trial, the case was approved as a "true bill"; those rejected were labelled "ignoramus" (or "not found" or "no bill") and the case was dropped.
Members of the grand jury tended to be from middle ranking professions such as merchants, professionals, wealthier tradesmen and artisans. Grand jurors for the Assizes were ideally the "best figures in the county", while those at Quarter Sessions had the same qualifications as ordinary jurors, at that time limited to ratepayers.
The role of the grand jury was reduced in the late nineteenth century, when pre-trial investigations by justices and the police, weeded out weak cases before indictments were drawn up. The grand jury procedure was abolished in 1933.
The Petty or Petit Jury
The petty jury or trial jury usually consisted of 12 jurors as it does today. It was the jury that heard the evidence in a trial and decided on the innocence or guilt of a defendant. After listening to the witnesses and lawyers (if present), the jury would retire, or huddle, and reach its verdict.
In some courts, cases were tried in batches, so juries could hear, perhaps, half a dozen trials before they retired to discuss their decisions.
Returning the Verdict
In the 19th century, the jury normally took very little time to reach a decision. In the case of Lucy Lowe, convicted of killing her child at Bedford (see the extended case study), the Jury took just 12 minutes. This suggests that the views of the most experienced jurors tended to predominate.
The jury could choose between guilty, not guilty or deliver a partial verdict (which meant that defendants were found guilty of part of the charges against them).
They would also sometimes return a verdict of guilty, with a recommendation for mercy. This could be because an offender was very young or it was a first offence or there was no intent to use violence.
These special verdicts had important consequences for the punishment of those who were convicted.
There were other instances in which the jury found the defendant guilty of a lesser offence. For example, defendants accused of stealing goods worth 40 shillings or more from a dwelling house, had to be sentenced to death. Juries could reduce the value of the goods to below 40 shillings, to avoid this statutory penalty.